The Felon Dilemma and Second Chances
By: J. Marlando
I am thankful that I’ve never gone to prison or been in trouble with the police beyond kid’s stuff many years ago. I know some people who have, however, and have been hired to write about them. One of the assignments I had was about the Crowe case in San Diego, California. It was about the murder of a young girl for which her fourteen year-old brother was blamed along with two of his friends.
The brother and one of his companions confessed to the crime. The problem was that the confessions had been coerced. The brother, a mere child himself, was denied sleep for a great many hours and not only told that his parents believed he was guilty but that he had demons inside himself that came out at night and did bad things. I was privileged to see all the tapes of the so called “interviews” and they were, in the least, cruel if not unusual punishment.
It was a public defender who found hidden evidence—a blood-stained t-shirt belonging to the real murderer that finally set the boys free. The boys, however, will never be the same after the terrible ordeals that they experienced; they will carry it with them for the rest of their lives.
Because of that particular assignment, I became interested in the topic of law in our land and especially false confessions and imprisonments. One study reveals that at least 20% of prison inmates have claimed to have made false confessions in their lives. But why would they do this?
One reason is plea bargaining—a coercive tool in the least in the guise of truth seeking: I had a client once who had been accused of a white collar crime and told by officials to sign a confession and get three years or don’t sign a confession and be assured of getting twenty-five years. What would you do?
And speaking of false conviction—for every 7 convictions, a prisoner on death row has been found innocent!
Why is it that there are lots of innocent or other individuals in prison that (truly) should not be there?
I have given this some thought and conclude the following as two major reasons:
1. Some policemen get anxious to solve cases and they often will build their case on who they “think” committed the crime without searching for anyone else who might have committed the crime. In other words, once they have rendered a suspect guilty they put their energy into proving themselves right as opposed to proving the suspect guilty or innocent. When they prove themselves “right,” even at the cost of arresting an innocent person, they receive great accolades from their departments and fellow officers.
2. District Attorneys are budgeted and given accolades by their cities based on their conviction records. As a result, in many instances, it is well known that evidence is hidden, facts are concealed and people have actually been framed by the system. (This will continue until D.A. offices are supported for seeking justice as opposed to being rewarded for winning convictions)
Before continuing with the article, however, I feel compelled to say the following: Over my years of being a writer, I have also been hired to interview and work with ex-cons who not only deserved their prison terms but should not have been released. For sure our prisons are not simply filled up with innocent bystanders; there are some extremely dangerous and harmful people behind bars including psychopaths and sociopaths that are violent evildoers.
There are, at the same time, those locked up by our system that should never be there. For example, the last statistic I read, said that we have at least 300,000 human beings who are clinically enduring mental problems locked up in prisons when they really need to be filling hospital beds. And, while there is some serious dope dealers locked up, there are also some users who simply broke the law but didn’t actually do anything criminal. So, in overview, there is lots wrong with our for-profit legal and penal systems. In fact, the United States is sadly enough known as the “Prison Nation” because we have more people behind bars than any other nation on the face of the earth.
I am fully aware that the average American citizen doesn’t think much or care much about people who are either in prison or have gone to prison because the general consensus is that if a man or woman ends up behind bars they must have done something to get there: And, this is generally true—but not every inmate is a career criminal! Some have merely made a mistake—maybe out of greed, maybe out of desperation, maybe out of plain foolishness but a mistake nevertheless and this brings us to the point of this particular narrative.
Everyone who does prison time is labeled a felon—it doesn’t matter if they murdered a dozen people or simply smoked too much dope. The label is a one size fits all. And, this label can keep an individual from ever getting a good job, living in a decent apartment, voting, or being licensed for, say, real estate and other state and federally licensed jobs. Indeed, this label:
- Often drives the ex-inmate into a life of crime or apathy because he or she sees no possibilities for re-building a future after release.
- Keeps a well-intended ex-inmate from rebuilding his or her life in a positive, productive and hopeful way.
This is not merely a labeling. This is a Dark-Age branding for the ex-inmate’s life. Indeed, every felon is listed on the internet to make matters worse so there is no concealing the truth and legal authority does all that it can so the felon cannot hide or disguise his or her past.
This not only harms the man or woman who has done their time, done their parole and wants to move on in a legitimate way, this harms the inmates family and for that matter, others who care about him or her. As I also understand it, *felons cannot get public benefits either so those who do not have helpful families or friends cam be condemned to living on the streets after release. This all but guarantees a return to prison for some offense. Perhaps you recall the poor soul who was given a life sentence for stealing a slice of pizza because this gave him his third strike?
We are all aware that prisons are absolutely not about rehabilitation but they are supposed to be a place where human beings pay off their debt to society and gain opportunity for a fresh start in their lives. However, since all felons are branded for a lifetime, their debt is never paid off and being released becomes nothing less than a mere extension of their prison sentence. Is it any wonder that **approximately two-thirds of released inmates re-offend within three years?
Yes, of course, I am well aware that the individual must take responsibility for his or her own actions but to assume that the state has no responsibility for the high recidivism rate is simply naïve. And, remember, there are hundreds of thousands of Americans in prison even at this very moment for consensual crimes—that is, so-called crimes that have no victims. How can a country that boasts freedom have such crimes you ask, what happens to the “unalienable” right to the pursuit of happiness in these cases?
And for any reader who thinks that I am defying “Americanism” in this article, I have news for you—read the great conservative, William F. Buckley Jr. and his views on the subject of having consensual crimes in our country, freedom and justice.
In any case, the question comes down to asking, what can be done?
As I see it, the answer is:
1. Anyone who has been imprisoned for a non-violent crime is permitted to have the label “felon” stricken from his or her record after five years of staying out of trouble after release.
2. We need to expand the “Second Chance Act” to assist all U.S. prisoners in making their return to society as successful as possible. This means assisting with housing, rehabilitation programs and employment when needed…which is just about always!
My guess is that this would cut the recidivism rate by at least 50% or even more for non-committed criminals. Until we find a “love” gene we will always have career criminals but we need to reduce the manufacturing of them through rigid totalitarian type legislation of laws. After all, we all love our country because we love our ideals. We need to put those ideals into human action.
*The Second Chance Act is helping to curb this particular problem but it needs greater funding and safeguarding from becoming one more self-serving/self-promoting bureaucracy. Theorhetically, this is the first positive signal in our society, since the 1980s deconstructed human concern out of the system, that seems to value the individual. I just hope that it doesn’t fall into the trappings that most government and so-called charitable agencies fall into.
**National recidivism will remain hopelessly high until we stop branding the ex-inmate as a lifetime felon. If a non-violent law breaker does his time, does his parole and does 5 years of good, honest living he has earned the right to a fresh start.
Special note: Our penal systems have become far too intricate in employment goals, economies and profit for those at the top. I understand there was a time the George Bush Senior had large investments in the U.S.’s private prison systems. I have always deemed that as being inappropriate and calloused,